Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is no stranger to gay communities, and it is no stranger to Oklahomans: as of December 2007, there were approximately 4,521 Oklahomans living with HIV/AIDS, with more than 80% of them representing men. With tremendous advances in the our understanding of this disease process and with new treatments being developed at a rapid pace, HIV, if caught early, treated properly and monitored closely, can be considered more of a manageable chronic disease than the death sentence it once was. That is not to downplay the significance of HIV/AIDS—it is still a life-altering disease with a great social stigma and requires constant attention to medication regimens, doctor’s visits and overall fitness on the part of the affected individual to maintain optimal health.
HIV is a blood-borne and sexually transmitted disease that attacks the body’s own immune system, specifically helper T cells (CD4+ cells), macrophages and dendritic cells. When these parts of the immune system are diminished and weakened by this viral infection, the human body is less able to protect itself from foreign pathogens, rendering it highly susceptible to opportunistic infections. This progression of HIV results in a much more serious syndrome that medical professionals have labeled “Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome,” or AIDS. AIDS represents the end-stage of the disease process, and ultimately results in death.
HIV is broken up into 4 distinct phase: an incubation period, an acute phase, a latent phase and, finally, AIDS. The symptoms of HIV infection appear during the acute phase and can often resemble the flu or mono, with fever, nausea/vomiting, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, headache, and general weakness or malaise. Initial symptoms typically last between 1 to 4 weeks, but length of duration and severity of symptoms may vary from individual to individual. Furthermore, since these are mostly constitutional symptoms, that is, not specific to any one disease process, patients are often initially misdiagnosed with more common infections. These symptoms resolve after a short time and during the latent phase individuals infected with HIV remain largely asymptomatic. Here risk factors are crucial to identify high-risk individuals who deserve further testing: men who have sex with men (MSM), intravenous drug users, individuals who are sexually active and don’t practice safe sex, or other high risk populations.
AIDS is the fourth and end-stage of an HIV infection, although HIV and AIDS are commonly confused and often used interchangeably, though inappropriately, by the public. When an individual’s HIV infection progresses to this stage, his or her immune system is weakened to the point that it can no longer effectively fight off infections, and the affected individual becomes predisposed to certain infections or tumors that are uncommon to the general population. These infections include various bacteria, fungi, and parasites, and are known as opportunistic infections, since they hit your body while its immune system is severely weakened. Just a few of the infections that commonly appear in individuals with AIDS are Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP), tuberculosis, candidiasis (yeast infection), and Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC). Cancers can also develop, with Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) being one of the most common skin lesions. This type of skin cancer develops into moderately sized purple nodules, and was typically only seen in older Mediterranean men before it appeared in AIDS-affected individuals in the 1980s.
While HIV/AIDS is a disease that can affect any person from any ethnic, social or economic background, gay individuals in particular are a very high risk group. This requires vigilance on all our parts to ensure that we don’t continue to spread this serious and life-threatening illness. Of the estimated 4,500 Oklahoman’s living with HIV/AIDS, 69% of them are gay men, and 37% of these cases occur in individuals 20-29 years old. The best way to fight this disease is to get test. If you don’t know your HIV status, get tested today. All high-risk individuals should be tested at least once a year. If you need to find a testing site, go to www.hivtest.org or call 211 for information on free testing sites. Avoid sex if you don’t have the proper protection (use only quality condoms that aren’t expired), and never share needles with anyone. As Ginger Lamar would say: “Safe sex is the ONLY sex!”